What’s Screening: January 29 – February 4

In festival news, Noir City closes on Sunday, and IndieFest opens Thursday.

A+ Brazil, Castro, Wednesday. One of the best black comedies ever  filmed, and the best dystopian fantasy on celluloid. In a bizarre, repressive, anally bureaucratic, andbrazil thoroughly dysfunctional society, one government worker (Jonathan Pryce) tries to escape into his own romantically heroic imagination. But when he finds a real woman who looks like the girl of his dreams (Kim Greist), everything starts to fall apart. With Robert De Niro as a heroic plumber. This is the second of Gilliam’s three great fantasies of the 1980’s, and the only one clearly intended for adults. On a double bill with the far less impressive 12 Monkeys, as the first of three Gilliam Wednesdays at the Castro.

A Mon Oncle, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Sunday, 2:00. This may be the funniest visual comedy made after the death of silent film. The slight story involves the sister, brother-in-law, and nephew of filmmaker Jacques Tati’s onscreen persona, monuncleMonsieur Hulot. While the mischievous little devil likes his uncle (adores is too strong a word for this kid), his wealthy and image-conscious parents are none too happy with the unemployable relative. It’s just an excuse for wonderful, loopy comedy of that quiet Tati style. Many themes associated with his next film, Playtime, pop up here. It’s got elaborate sets designed to parody modern architecture and gadgetry. A disastrous garden party foreshadows Playtime’s accident-prone restaurant. People in their homes are observed through windows. But Tati did it all first in Mon oncle, he did it funnier, and he didn’t go over budget and broke doing it.

Cinematic Titanic: Danger on Tiki Island, Castro, Tuesday, 7:00. Several Mystery Science Theater alumni, including the show’s creator, Joel Hodgson, will be at the Castro to add comic commentary to another dumb sci-fi horror flick, this one set in the South Pacific. The Cinematic Titanic group is not to be confused with RiffTrax, yet another group of MST3K veterans still trying to earn a living joking about bad movies.

A Psycho, UA Berkeley, Thursday, 8:00. Contrary to urban myth, Alfred Hitchcock didn’t really want people to stop taking showers. He was, however, inspired by the television show he was then producing to make a low-budget movie in black and white.

B+

M. Hulot’s Holiday, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 5:30; Red Vic, Wednesday and Thursday. Jacques Tati’shulotholiday_thumb[1]second feature, and his first as the hapless Mr. Hulot, is odd, plotless, nearly dialog-free, and in its own quiet and reserved way, pretty damn funny. The pipe-smoking Hulot takes a vacation at a seaside resort, and while anarchy doesn’t exactly break out, it pops up a bit from just below the surface.

Kurosawa Diary, Part 11: Record of a Living Being (I Live in Fear)

Akira Kurosawa’s 15th film doesn’t enjoy the continued popularity of the works that bookcase it, Seven Samurai and Throne of Blood. Nor is it as widely available. I saw it for the first time only a few years ago at the Castro. My second viewing happened on DVD Sunday night, as part of my current project to watch all of Kurosawa’s films (at least, all that are available) in chronological order.

Record of a Living Being (also known as I Live in Fear) deserves its obscurity to some extent. While it’s a good film, it’s hardly a great one. It’s easily the worst work from Kurosawa’s best period. (On the other hand, it’s obscurity can be partially blamed on its being a small, contemporary family drama made in between two ambitious and action-packed period pieces.)

The story concerns an aging industrialist (Toshiro Mifune, made up to look twice hisiliveinfear 35 years) driven insane, or at least irrational, by his fear of the the atom bomb. Convinced that only people in South America will survive World War III, he wants to move his entire family to Brazil. That includes his wife, mistress, ex-mistress, assorted children–legitimate and illegitimate–and children’s spouses. His family is trying to declare him mentally incompetent before he wastes all of his money on this endeavor.

Kurosawa probably intended I Live in Fear as a comment on the impossibility of living a normal life in the nuclear age. Such feelings were far more common in the 1950s than they are today, and more so in Japan than in any other country (the original Godzilla, a more commercial riff on those fears, came out the year before Kurosawa’s film). People were still getting used to the very idea of nuclear disaster, and open air, radiation-spewing weapon tests were common. Japan, of course, was (and still is) the only country ever attacked by atom bombs.

Mifune’s character was probably meant to be prophetic, as if we would all feel that way if we saw clearly. But today, he comes off as simply mentally unstable, turning the movie into a family drama about a patriarch losing his mind. Some relatives are concerned about his well-being and happiness, but others care only for their threatened inheritance.  These conflicts make for good drama, but I Live in Fear is no longer the big message picture Kurosawa intended.

When I first read about Record of a Living Being, decades before I saw it, I wondered why Kurosawa cast Mifune in the lead, rather than the older Takashi Shimura. When I saw the movie, I understood. The character has an intensity that the low-key Shimura lacked. And even with aging make-up, Mifune seems far more likely to have fathered multiple illegitimate children. There are reasons some actors become movie stars and others don’t.

Shimura has a good role, however. He plays a dentist who volunteers for the special family court that hears the suit over mental competence. We see much of the story through his eyes, as he becomes fascinated with this man and his family.

It’s a step down from the lead roles he played in Ikiru and Seven Samurai, but still better than the parts Kurosawa would give him in the future.

What’s Screening: January 22 – 28

Noir City opens at the Castro tonight for a 10-day run. I wrote a bit about it here.

Edison Theater 5 Year Anniversary, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30. The Museum has been presenting silent movies in their own Edison Theater for five years now, and they’ve got a free show to prove it.  Five rare shorts restored and preserved by the Museum, four pianists, and board members talking “briefly” about the Museum, itself.

A Animal Crackers, Rafael, Sunday, 2:00. The Marx Brothers’ second film, like their  first, The Coconuts, is a crudely-shot Broadway animalcrackersplay. Such was the art of talkie filmmaking in 1930. But at least it’s a funny play—a very funny one–written specifically for the Marx Brothers and filmed for the most part with the original cast. Marxist humor was always about tearing down the pompous and the self-important, and a high-class party is the perfect setting for the Brothers’ own special form of anarchy. All that goes a long way in helping us forgive the technical crudity. With Bill Marx (Harpo’s son) and Dick Cavett in person. Part of SF Sketchfest.

A Playtime, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 5:30. An American tourist, Monsieur Hulot, and assorted other specimens of humanity adrift and befuddled in a very modern playtime[1]Paris. That’s all there is of plot in Jacques Tati’s large-scale comedy, and that’s all that’s needed. On one level, Tati is commenting on modern architecture. On another, he’s just making us laugh in his odd, almost meditative way. And even when you’re not laughing, you’re fascinated by the little details of Tati’s city-sized universe. Tati spent (and lost) a fortune on Playtime, building a giant set and shooting the movie in 65mm for 70mm release, and the result is ours to enjoy…immensely. Part of the series, Playtime: The Modern Comedy of Jacques Tati.

B+ M. Hulot’s Holiday, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Thursday, 7:30. Jacques Tati’shulotholiday_thumb[1]second feature, and his first as the hapless Mr. Hulot, is odd, plotless, nearly dialog-free, and in its own quiet and reserved way, pretty damn funny. The pipe-smoking Hulot takes a vacation at a seaside resort, and while anarchy doesn’t exactly break out, it pops up a bit from just below the surface.

Mon oncle at the PFA

I saw Jacques Tati’s Mon oncle (My Uncle) at the Pacific Film Archive Wednesday night. Playtime is no longer my favorite Tati movie.

Mon oncle may be the funniest visual comedy made after the death of silent film. In typical Tati fashion, you sometimes have to think to get the joke, but that only increases the pleasure. I can’t tell you how many movies I’ve seen where someone accidentally punctures a water pipe inside a wall or beneath a floor—I can only remember the few times the gag really made me laugh (for instance, with Stan Laurel in “Busy Bodies”). But when Tati does it here, it takes you a few seconds to realize what has happened. The result is a delayed, yet deeper, longer, and more satisfying laugh.

By Tati standards, Mon oncle almost has a story. The auteur’s onscreen persona, Monsieur Hulot, has a sister, and as she’s married, he also has a brother-in-law andmonuncle a nephew (a movie called My Uncle must have a nephew or niece in it somewhere). While the mischievous little devil likes his uncle (adores is too strong a word for this kid), his wealthy and image-conscious parents are none too happy with Hulot. They worry that he’s generally irresponsible and can’t hold down a job.

I used to suspect that Tati intentionally avoided giving Mr. Hulot a first name; now I know for sure. Even his own sister, introducing him to a woman she’s hoping to hook him up with (they’re about as unsuited for each other as is possible with two bipeds), calls him only “my brother.”

Mon oncle is the second Hulot movie, made between M. Hulot’s Holiday and Playtime, and it contains many of the same themes repeated in his next picture. As with Playtime, there are elaborate sets designed to parody modern architecture and gadgetry. A disastrous garden party foreshadows Playtime’s accident-prone restaurant. People in their homes are observed through windows. But Tati did it first in Mon oncle, he did it funnier, and he didn’t go over budget and broke doing it.

But here’s something strange about this French comedy. The print screened at the PFA was dubbed into English, and had French subtitles. I have no idea why.

Now the only Hulot movie I haven’t seen is the last one, Traffic. It’s coming to the PFA on Sunday. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to make it. Nor will I be able to see it at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts on February 4.

Speaking of the YBCA, Mon Oncle is coming there Sunday, Jan 31.

The Strong Man at the PFA

I caught the Frank Capra/Harry Langdon comedy The Strong Man at the Pacific Film Archive Sunday. It was my first chance seeing it on the big screen. The movie has three bust-a-gut hilarious sequences, and it was great to share the gut-busting with a real audience.

When I entered the theater, I stopped to say “hello” to pianist Judith Rosenberg, who would be accompanying the silent film. I mentioned that I owned the film on Laserdisc, and she pulled me aside and asked me about it. This would be her first time seeing The imageStrong Man.

There was only one moment in the movie where I could sense her uncertainty—a gag with a canon where she wasn’t sure when it would go off. But I doubt the rest of the audience, which didn’t know she was watching the movie for the first time, noticed the hesitation. Overall, Rosenberg gave her usual excellent performance, supporting the movie without overshadowing it.

Put it another way: I didn’t miss the Carl Davis orchestra score on my Laserdisc. That’s saying a lot, since I’m a Davis fan and until Sunday, it was the only score for The Strong Man I ever heard.

The movie itself suffers from a bit too much moralizing and sentimentality. There’s a humor-free, Langdon-free expository section in the middle that’s nothing but moralizing and sentimentality. What’s more, Capra and Langdon gave the movie a blind ingénue five years before Chaplin did the same in City Lights, but unlike Chaplin, they didn’t find a workable way to make sightlessness funny. Instead, they put her on a pedestal so high that she was simply dull.

But all that is forgiven when you laugh. And The Strong Man provides plenty of laughs.

I waited more than 20 years to see The Strong Man theatrically. You may never get a chance, but the movie is available on DVD as part of a three-feature, one-disc collection, Harry Langdon…the Forgotten Clown. It’s available on Netflix.

What’s Screening: January 15-21

This is a good week if you want to laugh. Nothing on the list of comedies…and good ones.

A Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Castro, Thursday, 7:00. Terry Jones in person. Bump your coconuts together and prepare the Holy Hand Grenade, but watch out formontygrail the Killer Rabbit (not to mention the Trojan one). The humor is silly and often in very bad taste, and the picture has nothing of substance to say beyond ridiculing the romantic view of medieval Europe. But the Pythons’ first feature with an actual story (well, sort of) keeps you laughing from beginning to end. The funniest film of the 1970s—and of the 1070s. The $20 admission fee doesn’t seem so high when you know that co-writer/co-director/co-star Terry Jones will be on hand to answer questions. Part of SF Sketchfest.

A Playtime, Pacific Film Archive, Friday, 7:00. An American tourist, Monsieur Hulot, and assorted other specimens of humanity adrift and befuddled in a very modern playtime[1] Paris. That’s all there is of plot in Jacques Tati’s masterpiece, and that’s all that’s needed. On one level, Tati is commenting on modern architecture. On another, he’s just making us laugh in his odd, almost meditative way. And even when you’re not laughing, you’re fascinated by the little details of Tati’s city-sized universe. Tati spent (and lost) a fortune on Playtime, building a giant set and shooting the movie in 65mm for 70mm release, and the result is ours to enjoy…immensely. Part of the series, Playtime: The Modern Comedy of Jacques Tati.

B+ The Strong Man, Pacific Film Archive, Sunday, 2:00. Frank Capra’s first feature a a director is also my favorite silent comedy not starring Chaplin, Keaton, or Lloyd. It stars Harry Langdon, who for a very brief time came close to toppling Chaplin off his imagethrone. Langdon plays the Belgian assistant to a German strong man touring the US, hoping to find his beautiful war-time pen pal. The ultimate innocent child-like man, Langdon makes a mess of Ellis Island, has a shocking (to him, not to the audience) sexual encounter, fights off a cold to the annoyance of everyone around him, and cleans up a small town at the mercy of bootleggers. Charming, extremely funny, and occasionally preachy, The Strong Man shows Capra’s already-considerable talents at the start of his career. Although I own The Strong Man on Laserdisc, I’ve never seen it on the big screen. I hope to do so on Sunday. Part of the series Before “Capraesque”: Early Frank Capra. Piano accompaniment by Judith Rosenberg.

A Monty Python’s Life of Brian, Castro, Thursday, 10:00. Terry Jones in person. Not quite as funny as Holy Grail (but still hilarious), the Pythons’ second (and last) narrative feature digs a little deeper than its predecessor. Its story of a hapless citizen of Roman-occupied Judea, mistaken for the messiah, satirizes faith, fanaticism (both religious and political), and the human tendency to blindly follow leaders. The religious right attacked it viciously when it came out, which is kind of funny since the movie’s strongest satire is aimed at left-wing radicals. Director Terry Jones will introduce the film. Another part of SF Sketchfest.

B+ Mr. Hulot’s Holiday, Rafael, opens Friday for a one-week run. Jacques Tati’s hulotholiday_thumb[1]second feature, and his first as the hapless Mr. Hulot, is odd, plotless, nearly dialog-free, and in its own quiet and reserved way, pretty damn funny. The pipe-smoking Hulot takes a vacation at a seaside resort, and while anarchy doesn’t exactly break out, it pops up a bit from just below the surface.

What’s Screening: January 8 – 14

B+ M. Hulot’s Holiday, Pacific Film Archive, Thursday, 7:00. Jacques Tati’s second hulotholiday_thumb[1] feature, and his first as the hapless Mr. Hulot, is odd, plotless, nearly dialog-free, and in its own quiet and reserved way, pretty damn funny. The pipe-smoking Hulot takes a vacation at a seaside resort, and while anarchy doesn’t exactly break out, it pops up a bit from just below the surface. The PFA will screen a brand-new, restored 35mm print, along with the short “Watch Your Left,” as the opening presentation of its series Playtime: The Modern Comedy of Jacques Tati, and as its first screening after winter break.

A+ Rear Window, United Artists, Berkeley, Thursday. Alfred Hitchcock at his absolute best. James Stewart is riveting as a news photographer temporarily rearwindow_thumb[1] confined to his apartment and a wheelchair, amusing himself by watching his neighbors (none of whom he knows) and guessing at the details of their lives. Then he begins to suspect that one of them committed murder. As he and his girlfriend (Grace Kelly) begin to investigate, it slowly begins to dawn on us that they’re getting into some pretty dangerous territory (something they don’t realize until it’s almost too late). Hitchcock uses this story to examine voyeurism, urban alienation, and the institution of marriage, and to treat his audience to a great entertainment.

The Vanishing American, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30. I saw this 1926 pro-Native American western twice, a long time ago. I don’t remember it all that well, but the fact that I saw it a second time suggests that I must have liked it. Judy Rosenberg on the piano.

Jacques Tati

Jacques Tati deserves his own special throne in the pantheon of comic star/auteurs–not quite beside Chaplin and Keaton, but not far behind them.

If you’re not familiar with Tati, now is your chance to make is acquaintance. His five features (six if you include the made-for-TV, shot-on-videotape Parade) will play this hulotholidaymonth at at the Pacific Film Archive, the Rafael, and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, although not all of the films will play in all three venues.

Tati comes as close to being a silent comedian as anyone of the sound era. (One  could argue that Jackie Chan is equally influenced by the silent clowns, yet Tati and Chan are as different as film comics can get.) Talking plays almost no role in his movies, while sight gags and stunts abound. I saw his first feature, Jour de fête dubbed into German and without subtitles (of course, I wouldn’t have understood the original French, either), and had little difficulty following it.

Like other great comedians, he found one great character and stuck with him for most of his career. That character, Mr. Hulot, is friendly, polite, yet oddly reserved. He gives me the impression that, even when he’s pursuing sport and company, he really wants to be alone. I’ve seen only two of the four Hulot movies (I hope to see the others soon), and I don’t recall ever hearing his first name.

Audiences don’t laugh uproariously at Tati the way they do at Chaplin or Keaton, playtime although they definitely laugh. His work is subtle and requires your attention for full effect, and the jokes often seem more aimed at a chuckle then a belly laugh. Many jokes you simply won’t catch until a second viewing. And yet his best work—such as Playtime—work on levels that few other comedies even know exist.

I’ve only seen three of his movies. I hope to see the rest in the coming weeks.

The PFA series is the only one to contain all six of his features, and a few shorts. The YBCA program contains his five theatrical features, plus the documentary The Magnificent Tati. The Rafael doesn’t have a series, but will screen his first Hulot film, Mr. Hulot’s Holiday, for a full week.

Kurosawa Diary, Part 10: Seven Samurai

Seven months ago, personal responsibilities forced me to lay aside my goal of watching every available Kurosawa film in the order they were made. I’ve just  restarted it.

The long break came in-between my two favorite Kurosawa films, Ikiru and Seven Samurai. I own both films on DVD, so I can’t even blame Netflix for the delay.

So let’s pick up as if the delay never happened.

Based on Kurosawa’s work so far, you’d have every reason to expect Seven Samurai to be a stinker. Up until now, Kurosawa has proved incapable of making two good movies in a row. The pattern of his career had been to follow very good to great films like Stray Dog and Rashomon (the odd-numbered ones) with messes like Scandal and The Idiot (the even-numbered ones). So naturally, Ikiru—one of the greatest films of all time and Kurosawa’s 13th film (an odd number)–should be followed by a real turkey.

It didn’t happen that way, and he wouldn’t make a bad film for a very long time. Kurosawa followed Ikiru—to my mind the greatest contemporary drama ever—with Seven Samurai, the greatest serious action film. Here’s how I describe it in the Bayflicks Newsletter when it turns up in a local theater:

If you think all action movies are mindless escapism, you need to set aside 3½ hours and watch Kurosawa’s epic masterpiece. The basic story–a poor village hires warriors to defend them against bandits–has been retold many times since, but Kurosawa told it first and told it best. This is an action film with almost no action in the first two hours. But when the fighting finally arrives, you’re ready for it, knowing every detail of the people involved, the terrain that will be fought over, and the class differences between the peasants and their hired swords. One of the greatest movies ever made.

That doesn’t begin to describe everything Seven Samurai has going for it, from the7sam detailed portraits of the main characters to the critique of the Japanese class system, to the beautifully assured and controlled staging and camerawork. The battles look horrifying and chaotic, and never lose their excitement or kinetic beauty.

Kurosawa’s primary theme—the importance of kindness and charity in an otherwise cruel universe—comes through loud and clear. The title characters all have their reasons for signing on to this thankless little war, risking their lives for peasants (inferiors scarcely worth a glance) who can pay them only with food.  But their leader, played by the great Takashi Shimura, offers his help and creates a team because he sees how desperately the farmers need help.

In my Ikiru post, I called Shimura “more talented than [Toshiro] Mifune…although less charismatic.” Yet in Seven Samurai, he displays the charisma of a true leader. This is a man whom other warriors will gladly follow into battle.

Shimura played the lead role, but Mifune got top billing. His name meant more at the box office, of course, but he also steals the picture as a boisterous samurai of questionable heritage. He acts like a man with something to prove and something to compensate for (note the size of his sword), a fighter both comic and tragic.

Eight of Kurosawa’s next nine films could reasonably be called Toshiro Mifune star vehicles. Shimura would continue to appear in Kurosawa films for the rest of his life, but he would never again get a leading role. I don’t know why.

What’s Screening: January 1 – 7

Not much this week. The Stanford and Pacific Film Archive are closed. The Rafael and Castro are showing first-run, and there’s not much else to report.

Short Films from the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, Rafael, opens Friday for one week. Just what the name says. Ten of the 91 short films screened at the big festival.

B- Russian Ark, SFMOMA, Thursday, 7:00. Alfred Hitchcock wanted to shoot Rope as a single, unbroken shot, but that wasn’t feasible with 35mm film. But Alexander russianarkSokurov did it with video in this 2002 excursion through Saint Petersburg’s State  Hermitage Museum as well as Russian history. Huge, sumptuous, and spectacular, it’s a treat for history buffs, museum fans, and movie technology geeks (I’m all three). But like Rope, it has needless dull patches that could easily have been fixed with the very tool that Sokurov and Hitchcock refused to use for these features–editing.

B The Fifth Element, Red Vic, Tuesday. This big, fun, special effects-laden science  fantasy adventure refufifthelementses to take itself seriously. It never manages to be particularly exciting, but it succeeds in being rousing and funny—intentionally funny—eye candy. It’s also one of the few futuristic movies that’s neither utopian nor dystopian, making it—for all the silliness of the plot—relatively realistic.

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